Austin City Council OKs pilot program to open some trails for possible 24-hour use

Three local trails could be open later after Austin City Council approved a pilot program at its Jan. 31 meeting. Mayor Lee Leffingwell voted against the program.

"As we know, a lot of folks are looking to biking and walking as transportation measures, especially considering all the safety issues we've seen associated with our roads lately," Councilman Chris Riley said. "Biking on our trails at night can provide one more option for those that want to go there. I think it's very reasonable that we make that a safe and legal option, especially as we look forward to the opening of the boardwalk next year."

The program would begin June 1 and could open the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail, the Shoal Creek Greenbelt Trail and the Johnson Creek Greenbelt Trail up to 24-hour use. Funding for the pilot project will be discussed at another budget work session in February.

Riley said the three trails selected for the pilot program are trails that received transportation funding for their construction, and most of the city's transportation infrastructure is open 24 hours.

Another question about the program is how the newly opened trails will be patrolled, a decision that directly affects how much the program needs to be funded.

One option to for patrolling the opened trails is with park rangers. That option would include seven additional park rangers and three administrative assistants, costing about $326,000 for four months and about $600,000 annually.

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said his department recommends a total of 24 staff members to provide patrols for the opened areas. The annual cost for APD's increased staff and equipment would be about $3.1 million.

"We pride ourselves on our parks. I think we have a park system that's second to none. They are very safe. We're just very concerned that if we don't have the resources and we start experiencing what we anticipate we're going to experience, that it may have an opposite affect on what we're trying to do, which is to get people to actually use them more. People may use them less."

Leffingwell opposed the pilot program because he was not comfortable with committing to the $3.7 million in funding and believed funding the program at a lower amount would directly affect the level of safety APD would be able to provide.

"We would be telling our staff people, our police department, our parks department, 'Your estimate is too much, you're going to have to cut back on the amount police protection that you're going to provide for this pilot program,'" Leffingwell said.

Riley said other cities, including Denver and Seattle, have opened trails for 24-hour usage with few reports of increased criminal activity and minimal increase in police coverage to those areas.

Councilman Mike Martinez said funding the program below the amount requested is similar to what the council does during budget negotiations.

"We actually do this all the time, every year during budget. The police chief right now believes he's several hundred officers short, but we don't have the resources to provide that. I'd love to provide the staffing he believes is necessary, but today, he'll tell you as he has said this week, he's several hundred officers short, in his mind, of what he needs to act quickly and provide service."